Oral History 2: Leaving Germany, 1940, as told by Norbert Freedman

On November 30, 2011, my father-in-law, Norbert (Bert) Freedman, passed away at the age of 88. He was an inspiration to all who knew him–a man who lived life more fully than anyone I’ve known. Despite the many difficulties he encountered in his life, including fleeing Germany in 1940 at age 17, becoming blind, and losing his first wife to cancer when his children were very young, Bert forged ahead and never complained. He married my mother-in-law, Joyce, more than 30 years ago, and was working as a practicing psychoanalyst up until the last days of his life. The moving eulogies at his funeral from both family and colleagues were testaments to the lasting effect Bert had on so many.

Bert lived large before that term was even used. He loved to eat, drink good wine, use too much salt, tell jokes, schmooze, and entertain. His apartment was sometimes a hotel for European visitors. Although he was blind, he commuted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn on the subway to his office at Downstate for decades. He embraced technology in a way few people his age did, even those who were sighted. A few weeks before he died, he was getting ready to consult the “Geniuses” at the Manhattan Apple Store to find out if the latest  iPhone with the talking assistant Siri could make his life easier. He was a force.

In December 2008, Bert recorded the story of his experiences as a young man in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1930s, and how his family had to leave Germany because of the rise of the Nazis and the growing anti-Semitism they faced. In the recording, Bert tells of his family’s painful realization that they had to leave their homeland. His was a highly assimilated Jewish family that was not religious, and they felt as German as any other citizens. But beginning in 1932, Bert’s world changed when he first encountered anti-Semitism from his soccer teammates, who became violent towards him when he scored a goal. Between 1932 and 1939 his parents took a series of steps to prepare for the family’s exodus from Germany. They learned other trades and improved their foreign language skills in order to be able to make a living in what they hoped would be the United States. They had to travel separately and by different routes to reach the United States. In 1940 Bert and his mother left Hamburg, finally traveling on the Trans-Siberia railway to Yokohama, Japan, and then across the Pacific to Seattle, Washington.

The posted audio file of Bert’s story is long (53 minutes) but it is well worth the time spent listening to it. Thank you, Sam, for  turning a narration from a hand-held dictaphone into an MP3 file and posting it for me!




Addendum, July 2020. A transcript of this interview is now available.

Bert Freedman interview


The Great Depression: An Oral History

About 10 years ago a teacher at my sons’ school asked the students in his class to ask their older relatives if they had lived through the Great Depression and were able to tell the class what it was like to be a child during that period of US history. My father, who has always been an enthusiastic student of history, was a boy in New York City during those years, and he volunteered to make a tape about his experience. My sons’ friend, Juan, is the boy who had this assignment, and as he had not been born in the US, and none of his relatives spoke English, my father volunteered to make a tape about his experiences for Juan to use.

At the time of this recording, Juan was 12 years old. Now he is 22 years old and serving in the US military. My father is now 83, and still has vivid memories of the Great Depression. Given the current economic situation and some of the recent discussions about social programs like Social Security and Medicare, which were created in response to the Great Depression, I thought it was interesting to listen once again to my father’s recollections so we might remember how difficult things were when there was no “safety net.”

The recollection is quite long, but worth listening to. For those who need to limit their listening time, it might help to know that at around the 19 minute mark, the discussion shifts from a general discussion of what life was like in those years to one that is more specific to his experience during the Great Depression.

Here’s a downloadable link: The Great Depression